Update: Please refer to our updated 2013 Smartphone Comparison Guide for newer phones.

In just five years, smartphones have gone from expensive novelties to fundamental parts of our lives. If you're shopping for a new smartphone, the choices can be daunting. How do you sort through the mess? Our 2012 Smartphone Comparison Guide is designed to help you decide which model is best for you.

If we included every smartphone, you'd need to read this on a screen the size of a billboard. So we narrowed it down to six of the top smartphones of 2012:

  • Apple iPhone 5
  • Samsung Galaxy S III
  • Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD
  • HTC One X+
  • Nokia Lumia 920
  • Google/LG Nexus 4

Specs aren't everything, but they can suggest a device's capabilities. We break down the most important measurable categories, as well as those hard-to-define intangibles.

Without further ado, let's compare the top smartphones of 2012.

Dimensions

In terms of surface area, the Galaxy S III is the biggest, and the iPhone 5 is the smallest. The iPhone 5 is also the thinnest, while the chunky Lumia 920 is the thickest.

Weight

If you want light, the iPhone 5 delivers. The Lumia 920, meanwhile, is incredibly heavy for a 2012 smartphone. When it's in your pocket, you'll know it.

Display

Smartphone displays have officially been super-sized. The iPhone 5, with Apple's largest ever phone display, is still a half-inch smaller than the next smallest in this group.

All of these phones should provide razor-sharp text and images.

Processor

There's also nothing to worry about here. All six phones should deliver good to great performance.

RAM

These numbers should also mean good to great performance.

Storage

For most customers, 16 GB is a good amount of storage. If you store lots of apps, videos, or music, you might want to get more – and avoid the 8 GB Nexus 4.

Wireless

All but one of our phones support LTE, the fastest and best mobile data network. The Nexus 4 is instead compatible with HSPA+: it can theoretically be as fast as LTE, but it typically won't be.

Battery

Many factors can influence battery life, so take these numbers with a few grains of salt. All of the phones should get you through the day with normal use. If you want the longest possible battery life, you might want to check out the Razr Maxx HD.

Cameras

All the phones should take great pictures with their rear cameras, and allow for HD video chat with the front cameras.

Intangibles

That passionate bald man is Sir Jony Ive, Apple's head of design. The iPhone 5 may be his masterpiece, with its premium materials and design. Most of the other phones have plastic backs, but the iPhone 5's is made of anodized aluminum.

Though the Nexus 4 may steal its crown, the Galaxy S III has spent the last few months as the King of Android. Samsung is the only Android manufacturer that is doing well, and the S3 is its flagship.

It's not often that you see battery life marketed as a killer feature, but that's what Motorola did with the Razr Maxx HD. Other phones will get you through the day with above average use. It may get you through two days with above average use.

The One X+ ships with Dr. Dre's Beats Audio technology. If you own Beats headphones, your music may sound better. Chances are, though, this isn't something most will be basing their purchase on.

You may not see any tumbleweeds blowing around the Windows Phone Marketplace, but the Lumia 920 is still at a big disadvantage. Windows Phone is much newer than iOS and Android, and its app selection isn't on par with its competitors.

The Nexus 4 ships with the latest version of Android, 4.2 Jellybean. Since it runs stock (no manufacturer UI) Android, it will also receive future updates much quicker than other Android phones.

The Nexus 4 also sells cheaply off-contract. For US$300 – only $100 more than most cost on-contract – you can buy the Nexus 4 with no strings attached. Just remember that 8 GB of storage isn't a lot, and the 16 GB model costs an extra $50.

Summing up

This holiday season is a great time to shop for a new smartphone. Sharp displays, great cameras, and zippy performance are now the norm. The choices can be overwhelming, but these six phones – each with its own pros and cons – represent the best of the best. Hopefully the above information makes the selection process a little less daunting.